A modern-day Orpheus: U2's Bono brings 'Stories of Surrender' to life on Boston stage

BOSTON — This is not a rebel song. This is Bono’s “Stories of Surrender.”

Brutally honest and often funny — bloody funny — the U2 frontman has taken a page out of the “Springsteen on Broadway” playbill to promote his brand spanking new memoir, “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.”

A lifetime in the making, Bono launched his 14-city mini-song and lecture tour Wednesday in New York City with such dignitaries as two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, President Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and U2’s The Edge, who didn’t play and left his guitar at home.

Friday night, Bono was at the Orpheum in Boston. Bono hasn’t performed in the Bay State since the summer of 2018, and that was when U2 brought its “Songs of Experience” tour to the TD Garden for two sold-out nights.

The last time Bono performed with U2 at the Orpheum was May 5 and 6, 1983, while U2 did their first arena show a month later on June 28, 1983, at the Worcester Centrum.

In many ways, “Stories of Surrender” is a series of love letters — a love letter to Bono’s wife, a love letter to his mother, a love letter (and a love-hate) letter to his father, a love letter to the Ramones, a love letter to his U2 bandmates, a love letter to Boston (at least, on this given night) and, lastly, a love letter to America.

Despite wearing rose-colored glasses, Bono doesn’t look back at his life or look at the world with rose-colored glasses. That’s not to say that Bono is a pessimist - far from it. He’s a hopeless romantic and idealist. But he has had his share of heartbreak and debilitating loss that has shaped him into the rock star and humanitarian he is today.

If there is an inherent message in “Stories of Surrender” is how rock ‘n’ roll can inspire us, comfort us, heal us, complete us, make us whole and make us (and the world) better.

The Dublin shamrocker was backed by a low-key three-piece band comprising Jacknife Lee, who provided samples and percussion, harpist and singer Gemma Doherty and cellist Kate Ellis.

During his two-hour performance, Bono got poetic quick and often.

Modern-day Orpheus

Envisioning himself as a modern-day Orpheus trying to find his lost love not in the underworld but in the London underground, Bono declared that his story is how his wife, Alison “Ali” Stewart, saved the would-be rock star from himself.

After his poetic introduction, Bono burst into a passionate but abbreviated version of “City of Blinding Light,” which was met with roaring applause from the audience.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Wearing all black, Bono reminisced about playing the Orpheum for the first time on Nov. 14, 1981, and how back then, playing the Boston theater was the “big time,” before concluding, “It still is.”

“Orpheus returns to the Orpheum,” Bono interjected. “No burning books tonight.”

Later, Bono name-dropped a memorable show U2 played at the Paradise and defunct Boston radio station WBCN for playing U2’s records.

Under a blood-red stage light, Bono treated the crowd to a stripped-down “Vertigo.”

Making fun of some of U2’s concert stage excesses in the past (including a giant claw, a spaceship and a humongous neon lemon), Bono declared, “Tonight, we have chairs!” And he wasn’t kidding.

Simple stage

The sparse stage consisted of an upholstered wing chair not unlike Archie Bunker’s on “All in the Family” (which, in this case, symbolized the chair of Bono’s dad), a set of modest chairs (which symbolized Bono and his three bandmates) and a modest table that symbolized everything from an operating room to an elevated stage.

Bono joked that it’s preposterous to think that others would be interested in his memoirs, citing the most extraordinary people that he has met in his life are people that he has formed deep relationships with.

Despite nearly four decades of playing to packed arenas and stadiums, Bono seemed utterly surprised how well this work in progress was progressing onstage, so much so he interjected in the script the knowing aside, “It seems to be going pretty well.”

Bono sang a barebones version of “With or Without You” on his knees until the audience joined him for the chorus.

Standing onto the table, Bono continued with an out-of-body experience in which he’s watching a surgeon cut open his chest and work to repair his heart that was about to burst.

“I was born with an eccentric heart,” Bono said. “In one of the chambers of my heart, where most people have three doors, I have two. Two swinging doors, which at Christmas 2016 were coming off their hinges.”

Two spirits loom large in Bono’s stage performance: His distant father and his long-since-dead mother.

Loss of parents

A subject the singer has explored since U2’s first album, Bono told the crowd how his mother, Iris, suffered an aneurysm at her father’s funeral. Bono, now 62, was only 14 at the time and he is still wrestling with the loss.

“I know this sounds almost too Irish,” Bono acknowledged about the passing of his mom. “This is my story and I’m stuck with it.”

Bono described how he constantly prayed after his mother’s death while his father dealt with the grief by never mentioning her name again. When Bono’s “rage and melancholy” was getting the best of him, his older brother threw Bono a lifeline in the form of a Ramones record.

Capturing the exuberance of youth, Bono relives his teenage self dancing in his room and how a 29-minute punk rock record made more sense to him than Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which took three and half weeks to read.

Through the years, Bono told how he would regularly meet his father at a nearby Irish pub and how his father would greet him with the same opening line, “Anything strange or startling?”

One day, Bono was ready for his dad’s question.

“How about Luciano Pavarotti calling the house for startling?” Bono answered. “He wants me and the Edge to write him a song.”

“You’re a baritone who thinks he’s tenor,” Bono’s father scolded.

Later in the show, Bono did a dead-on impersonation of Pavarotti, whom he called the “greatest singer of the history of the world,” calling him up on the phone.

Over the strains of “Stories for Boys,” Bono recounted his first impressions of his future bandmate including David Evans (the Edge) who he said would buy a guitar the shape of his head, and Adam Clayton, who Bono described as a “posh Sid Vicious” with a white long afro that looked like a photo negative of Jimi Hendrix.

Beloved U2 anthems

Bono also told stories behind or about some of the most beloved songs in the U2 catalog.

Bono showed how “I Will Follow,” the first of many songs about Bono trying to cope with the loss of his mother, was born out of clashing egos and a frustrating band practice.

After the backstory behind “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Bono sang U2’s “War” classic and momentarily transformed the Boston theater into a church.

Bono said “Pride (In the Name of Love),” U2’s rousing, heartfelt anthem to fallen civil liberties leader Martin Luther King Jr., is what got them to be asked to play “Live Aid,” despite his mullet.

During “Desire” Bono not only did some Elvis Presley moves but channeled Joel Grey’s Academy Award-winning role from “Cabaret “ by singing “Money makes the world go around” before abruptly snapping, “No! Love makes the world go round, tough love.”

Bono said fame is currency and U2 used its currency to start the charitable “One” and “Red” campaign.

“It turns out you can change the world and have fun,” Bono concluded.

One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the stage show, which actually comes up in the first chapter of his book, is when Bono turns the table on his father and asks him first - only to get the answer, “I have cancer.”

The segment ends with the cruelest joke of all, the last, dying words of Bono’s father — “(expletive) off!” — which Bono has convinced himself was not directed to him but to the hardships of his father’s life.

His father’s death segued into a powerful rendition of “A Beautiful Day,” making it a mortal-coil opus in which father is crossing over to the other side, followed by the show’s biggest reveal.

“When I lost my father, I found that my voice started to change,” Bono confessed. “The baritone who thought he was a tenor has become a tenor.”

Sitting on stage on what has symbolically been his father’s chair, Bono brought the house down by singing a cappella and in Italian “Torna a Surriento.”

After talking about how the silence in his life has been filled with music and pontificating how “America is a song yet to be finished,” Bono reprised “City of Blinding Light” and the lucky ones who got in the Orpheum left with a night that they will be talking about for years to come.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: U2's Bono brings 'Stories of Surrender' to life on Boston stage